As a generation of directors reaches retirement, fresh faces prepare to take over US museums
The competition to find the right director grows as US museum boards look beyond the usual suspects
A new generation is preparing to lead US art museums and they will face different challenges than their predecessors. Potential candidates may be promoted sooner than they had imagined: around 20 institutions are searching for new directors, including the Detroit Institute of Arts, the High Museum in Atlanta, the Baltimore Museum of Art in Maryland and the San Francisco Fine Art Museums. Other major institutions, including the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, are expected to join them over the next five years as their directors reach retirement age. More than one-third of directors are aged 60 or over, according to a survey of 150 US museums published by the Economist last month.
“We knew there was a generational shift coming,” says Laurie Nash, an executive recruiter who has worked with New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Cleveland Museum of Art in Ohio. “I’m just not sure that any of us expected all of these people to retire at the same time. It’s a lot for the field to absorb.” In 2009, the Association of Art Museum Directors reported that 60 directors were expected to retire by 2019. The number of vacancies “has created a lot of anxiety”, says Sarah James, an executive recruiter who has worked with the Guggenheim.
Many long-serving leaders, such as Malcolm Rogers of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), and Arnold Lehman of New York’s Brooklyn Museum, remained at the helm longer than expected to guide their institutions through the recession. The economy has stabilised, and now, they are departing all at once.
Every appointment creates a ripple effect. In April, the MFA hired Matthew Teitelbaum, the long-time director of the Art Gallery of Ontario, to replace Rogers, creating a vacancy in Toronto.
Who will take their place?
This sudden demand for directors requires some museums to look beyond the usual suspects. “If we’re just playing musical chairs with everyone in their late 50s and early 60s, if boards continue to feel more comfortable with male candidates, then it’s going to be a very small pool,” says Kimerly Rorschach, the director of the Seattle Art Museum. In March, Anne Pasternak, the director of the public art non-profit organisation Creative Time, was named as Lehman’s successor at the Brooklyn Museum.
Expect to see more first-time directors, particularly at smaller institutions. Chief curators, department heads, university-museum administrators and community arts leaders are being considered more carefully than in the past. Cara Starke, the former director of exhibitions at Creative Time, was chosen to lead the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in Saint Louis, Missouri, in April. Like Pasternak, she has never led an institution—or even a curatorial department in a museum. The board wanted “someone who was interested in the role institutions can play in their communities”, Starke says.
Board members are wary of repeating previous mistakes. During the recession, some museums in dire financial straits appointed executives from outside the art world to steady the ship. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (LA MoCA), hired a former administrator from the University of California. Today, boards recognise that “we need people who know art”, Rorschach says. Experience in managing a non-profit is also important. This proved a challenge for Jeffrey Deitch, the gallerist who experienced three stormy years running LA MoCA before returning to New York’s for-profit art world.
Donors and demographics
Among the new challenges confronting US museum directors are an ageing workforce, pressure to build an international programme, changing audience demographics and the need to respond to the digital revolution. “They have to face an audience that will meet the museum for the first time online and which makes sense of information through its phones,” Laurie Nash says.
Before the recession, the sector experienced a building boom. New directors must keep the lights on inside these expanded institutions. “In some cases, a director will come in and say, ‘Oh my gosh, what have I been given? How do I make this enterprise run efficiently?’” says Melody Kanschat, the director of the Getty Leadership Institute at Claremont Graduate University, California.
Adam Lerner, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver, recently completed a campaign to clear a debt of $9m, relating to a facility that was built in 2007, two years before he was appointed. “These kinds of corrections have to be made now,” Lerner says.
“I think we are evolving from a period of expansion to a period of sustainability,” says Olga Viso, the director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. But sustainability is not just about stabilising a museum’s finances, she says. “Being conscious of your community is a more rapidly growing concern. Twenty years ago, a director did not have to balance as many constituencies as we do today.” Within 40 years, the core audience of most museums—non-Hispanic whites—will become a minority of the US population.
At the American Alliance of Museums’ conference in April, the keynote speaker, Johnnetta Cole, the director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, said that a director’s most important reading material is the national census. “Twenty years ago, boards were hiring someone who made them happy,” says the recruiter Sarah James. “Now they have to hire people who will make people who don’t look like them happy.”